Land in red zone is a sacred place for villagers

Choki Wangmo | Wangduephodrang

Paddy is a major food crop in a water-scarce Thangu village in Wangduephodrang. For generations, villagers appease the Tshomen for rain, believed to be residing in a pond village, for bountiful yield.

Today, villagers are busy trying to restore the pond and their Jashing, a willow tree, which they believe is the abode of the Tshomen.

The area has undergone major excavation works. A biscuit manufacturing unit is planned on the very spot. The construction involved draining the pond and filling it with soil. The life force of the Tshomen, the Jashing was uprooted and is lying on the ground, dead and discarded.

“The tree died due to lack of water. An excavator uprooted it,” a villager said.

It created emotional outcry among people in Thangu. Villagers said that in 2005, when development activities began in the dzongkhag, 19 households wrote to the dzongdag asking the pond to be spared from disturbances to ensure their safety.

The letter written on November 11, 2015 stated: “Tshomengorsa is the only place where we can perform and complete our village ritual. It begins from the northern side by appeasing the deity and ends here with the Tshomen ritual.”

In 2015, the owner of the factory, Kinley Tenzin obtained the one-acre-30 decimal government land on lease to start the project worth Nu 42 million.

According to villagers, people of Thangu and Wangjokha collaboratively perform the one-day ritual, seeking divine intervention for good yield. While the people of Wangjokha paid the expenses for the day, Thangups contributed labour.

The tradition continues till this day with five young girls and a shaman, performing the ritual.

“But we are on the verge of losing our century-old tradition for the sake of one or two businessmen,” a villager, Shacha Om said.

Shacha Om, who lives near the pond complained about numbness on the left side of her body, which, according to her, could have been caused by the Tshomen’s wrath upon destructing her abode.

However, Kinley Tenzin said that, he designated 11-decimal plot for people to perform their rituals, but villagers complained to the dzongkhag administration saying they have to perform at the same spot. Upon dzongkhag’s order, Kinley Tenzin said he designated the land as per peoples’ wish.

Safety issues

People in the vicinity also raised safety concerns because the area falls in the red zone of the disaster management’s hazard zonation map. In the past, the pond was about four-feet lower than the surrounding area, which helped solve the problem of drainage during monsoon.

In summer, the swollen Punatsangchhu overflows and a stream from above in Matalungchu flows toward the valley, causing flashfloods and endangering lives. Household wastewater also flowed into the pond.

There are more than 20 acres of paddy fields in the valley. The overflow from the fields during monsoon drains into the pond, solving water-logging and the related problems.

People also raised health concerns from pollution and wastewater, considering the factory was located in the middle of the village.

Kinley Tenzin, however, said he obtained environmental clearance stating, his factory won’t have harmful impact on the environment and people.

A Letter on August 25, 2015 from dzongkhag forest office to National Land Commission stated, “Environmentally, the proposed activity has been exempted for requiring environment clearance by National Environment Commission which indicates that such activity do not have adverse impacts to the surrounding environment.”

Dzongkhag environment officer, Rinchen Penjor said that although construction was restricted in the red zone, there were similar business entities in the area.

“Kinley Tenzin got the legal approval as mandated,” he said.

A woman who owns a cottage near the place said that as the pond area was raised higher than their side of the land, the drains clogged and water overflow onto the footpaths.

“I asked him to lower his stone wall, but he told us to build higher walls if we could,” she said.

“The land on which he is building the property is government’s land while ours is a private house. If disasters occur, we have no coping and mitigation measures like him,” she added.

Earlier this year, the affected households and Kinley Tenzin came to a mutual agreement not to build higher walls, which Kinley Tenzin breached, according to his neighbours.

At the site, Kuensel found that half of the neighbour’s walls were covered by soil from the construction site.

“We have no plans to stop his construction but to construct as per the agreements. He doesn’t care whether we will be washed away by flood or not as long as he is safe,” she added.

Nearby households asked Kinley Tenzin to level their lands to his in order to avoid flooding. This June, the gewog administration ordered Kinley Tenzin to complete the leveling works by the end of July.

A letter from the gewog administration on June 6 2019 stated: “To prevent flooding in Shacha Om and Daw’s land, Kinley Tenzin should complete the leveling works by the end of July.”

However, Shacha Om said the activity was not carried out even after months.

The same letter stated that Kinley Tenzin should not build walls higher than his neighbours. However, at the site, Kuensel found that the ongoing wall construction was already a foot or two higher than his neighbours.

Kinley Tenzin said that he obtained the land through proper channels and procedures, including public consultation process. “I don’t have a responsibility to level the area of my neighbours, but I volunteered for their sake. They are telling me not to build infrastructure in my own area,” he added.

He said he even agreed with other business owners in the area to build an outlet to drain out wastewater.

Thangu tshogpa Chencho, said people had no authority over government land and majority of the villagers gave permission during public consultation.

“If the public complained before construction, it could have prevented the construction and loss to the owner, but now it has already started after series of activities and investments,” Chencho said.

People near the construction area said they didn’t attend the consultation meeting and the permission was granted by people in the periphery who didn’t feel the impact from the project.

Shacha Om said that the authorities concerned told them they had no claim over government land, but whenever they asked the agencies about the problem, they used the signatures as evidence. “In the past, when we went to the dzongkhag, they said people have no authority over the land, but now they said the villagers gave the consent.”

Out of about 19 households, 13 signed the document which stated that they agreed to the proposal from the owner.

Villagers also doubted vested political involvement. They said in the past, about four businessmen tried to get the land on lease, but to no avail. But it was easily granted to Kinley Tenzin.

Experts’ say

According to an official from disaster management, the department issued circulars to dzongkhags restricting construction in the red zone but enforcement is difficult on private lands. “Private owners say they have the right to build anything,” he said.

Two years ago, the dzongkhag ordered that only two-storied houses could be built in the area.

Phuntsho Tshering from National Centre for Hydrology and Meterology said the implementation of rules in the red zone was not clear because settlements, business, and economic activities were increasing every year.

In the future, PHPA plans to build embankment walls in Thangu to protect the valley from disasters.